KOCHI - An Indian court has convicted a senior Catholic priest of raping a minor and sentenced him to 20 years in jail, the latest sexual assault scandal involving the Church in southern Kerala state.
Robin Vadakkumchery was found guilty on Saturday (Feb 16) of raping a 16-year-old schoolgirl, with the crime only coming to light after the victim gave birth to a baby in a surprise delivery in February 2017.
Citing a lack of evidence, the court acquitted four nuns, a priest and an orphanage employee who had been accused of trying to cover up the crime and shield the the influential Vadakkumchery.
After a child rights charity reported the secret delivery to the police, leading to the priest's arrest at Kochi airport as he attempted to board a plane to Canada, many of the main witnesses in the case turned hostile.
"Almost all the independent witnesses proved non-cooperative, making it difficult for us to provide substantive evidence against all that the defence threw at us," Inspector Sunil Kumar, who investigated the case, told AFP.
Even the father of the victim testified that he, and not the priest, had raped the girl, while his daughter told the court that the relationship was consensual and said she had been an adult at the time.
Sex - whether consensual or otherwise - with a person below 18 years of age is considered rape under India's stringent child protection laws.
Only the doctor's official record of when the baby was born could prove that the girl had been a minor at the time of delivery, said Inspector Kumar.
"Luckily for us, the doctor who delivered the baby... stood his ground, so we could prove without doubt that the victim was a minor at the time," he said.
The victim had been a student at a Church-run school which came under Vadakkumchery's jurisdiction.
Saturday's verdict followed a raft of allegations against senior Church figures in Kerala, including a bishop, Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun 13 times over two years. He denies the charges.
Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal, who has faced disciplinary action for supporting protests demanding action against Mulakkal, lauded the verdict.
"It will work as a deterrent against such offenders. Rather than covering up such heinous crimes, (the) Church should expose such elements," she told the Hindustan Times.
Sexual abuse by clergy and the failure of officials to take action has mired the Catholic Church in scandal across the world in recent years.